Aging Therapy: Can science reverse aging? Can we make our lives at least a little bit longer with the help of science?
It has always been fascinating to think that science will one day device a treatment plan that can successfully reverse aging, and allow human beings to live longer. There are dedicated teams of researchers doing painstakingly thorough work needed to unravel the biological mysteries of ageing and, maybe one day in the distant future, figure out how to tackle it. But, as is often with science, it is going to take a very long time since we can hear of at least a testable therapy to reverse aging.
There is one person, however, who believes that the time to act and to reverse aging, is now. This is the CEO of BioViva, a biotech company based in Seattle that is working to develop treatments to slow down the ageing process. Recently, the company claimed that Parrish herself had undergone gene therapy and that treatment had reversed the biological age of her immune cells by 20 years. According to Parrish, it is not defeating death or immortality that her company is after, but to deal with what she calls as ‘diseases of the ageing’.
Genes inhabit twisted molecules of DNA called chromosomes. At the ends of these chromosomes there are stretches of DNA called telomeres. The function of telomeres is to protect the important genetic material from damage so that it will not lead to disease-causing malfunction or cell death. Furthermore, telomeres allow the cell and its DNA to divide. However, as cells divide, a portion of the telomeres is lost. After a finite number of divisions, the cell dies, and this is the process that might contribute to the human ageing process.
It is this natural process that is hoped to be slowed down by telomerase gene therapy, aimed at lengthening parts of the telomeres. This is one of the two treatments (The other was a myostatin inhibitor, a drug that is being tested as a treatment for muscle loss.) given to Elizabeth Parrish, who flew to Colombia to receive the, since therapy of this kind is illegal in the United States. According to BioViva, the telomeres of her leukocytes grew longer, from 6.71 kb in September 2015 to 7.33 kb in March 2016. The company claimed that it meant having “reversed 20 years of normal telomere shortening.” The gene therapy that Parrish received is designed to encourage the cell to produce telomerase, a protein that repairs telomeres.
The inspiration for this type of experiment on a human being is from the laboratory of Maria Blasco, a Spanish scientist who in 2012 showed that telomerase gene therapy could extend the life span of mice by as much as 20 percent.
BioViva’s claim that six months after treatment the telomeres in Parrish’s white blood cells had lengthened by 9% was met by a mixture of derision and incredulity by many scientists. They pointed out that there was a lack of proper scientific procedure.
Timothy Caulfield, a professor at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health is concerned that Parrish’s work lacks scientific rigour and is at risk of being picked up by unscrupulous practitioners aware of the selling power of anti-ageing treatments. Just because some treatment worked on mice, there is no guarantee that it is going to work out in humans, he said.
George M Martin, professor of pathology at the University of Washington was quick to distance himself from BioViva’s claim. George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and another of the BioViva’s advisers, is also cautious of the idea that he has “ties” with the company. Church says he advised BioViva to go through proper regulatory channels and to do the required pre-clinical work before it ventured into interventions in humans.
Caution is necessary, Church points out, in the wake of the tragic cases of the occurrence of cancer in two patients in France in 2003, and the 1999 death of Jesse Gelsinger, the first person to die in a clinical trial for the therapy. Both failures set back the whole field. Though the field has improved considerably since then, it is necessary for new drugs to be tested in placebo controlled trials with testing on animals first, he said.
Duncan Baird is a professor of Cancer and Genetics at Cardiff University’s School of Medicine also urges caution over Parrish’s impatient approach to unearthing treatments. According to Baird, one of the reasons telomeres have evolved to be of a specific length is to limit the number of times a cell can proliferate and thus to limit its potential to be cancerous. Elongating telomeres will be like meddling with a fundamentally important mechanism that suppresses tumour in long-lived species like ours, he said.
Also, though scientists have found correlations between health and telomere length, no one is sure if shortened telomeres actually cause health problems or if they’re just a side effect of aging. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, telomere length doesn’t have a clear connection to health—for instance, cardiovascular diseases have been linked to shorter telomeres, whereas cancer is associated with longer lengths. One cannot conclude in any case that a population with short telomeres will die soon and long telomeres will live long, said Abraham Aviv, a telomere researcher at Rutgers, wrote in an e-mail to The Scientist.
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It is not just Elizabeth Parrish who is attempting to combat ageing and its myriad manifestations. Around the world, there are teams of dedicated researchers who are doing the painstakingly thorough work needed to unravel the biological mysteries of ageing and, maybe one day, figure out how to tackle it. Whether such attempts will one day bear fruit is a question only time can answer.